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Insider Interview: Rodriguez Helps Lay Groundwork For Pataki '08

New York Gov. George Pataki (R) isn't a household name in the 2008 presidential sweepstakes, but Leonard Rodriguez aims to make him one.

Should New York's George Pataki enter the '08 GOP presidential race, Leonard Rodriguez will bring valuable national campaign experience to the Pataki organization. (Courtesy Leonard Rodriguez)

Rodriguez, who caught the eye of White House political guru Karl Rove during the early days of George W. Bush's 2000 presidential bid, is staking his quick rise through the Republican ranks on Pataki -- signing on as political director of the governor's 21st Century Freedom PAC.

"This guy has a lot to offer and has really not been given an opportunity for the public at large to know his work and his story," Rodriguez said of Pataki.

Rodriguez is one of a number of former Bush campaign aides who have already signed on with a candidate for the upcoming 2008 nomination fight. Among the most prominent are Bush media consultant Mark McKinnon and 2004 political director Terry Nelson, who have signed on with Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie and vice presidential adviser Mary Matalin are on board with Sen. George Allen (Va.), and Anne Dickerson, who served as deputy to 2004 Bush campaign finance chairman Mercer Reynolds, is now affiliated with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's Solutions America PAC.

Rodriguez brings two unique skills to the table when it comes to presidential politics -- Iowa expertise and a deep knowledge of the Hispanic community.

During Bush's 2000 campaign, Rodriguez helped craft Spanish-language radio and newspaper advertisements aimed a voters in the Iowa caucuses -- the first time any presidential candidate had targeted that demographic -- a small one in the Hawkeye state (according to the 2000 Census, only 2.8 percent of Iowa's population is Hispanic.) Bush won the Iowa caucuses with 41 percent of the vote, and Rodriguez moved into the national campaign's Austin office to focus on organization and grassroots work.

After Bush won the presidency in 2000, Rodriguez moved into the White House political affairs office to work alongside Rove and Ken Mehlman, the current RNC chairman. Rodriguez oversaw the southwest, U.S. territories and a few states in the Midwest before leaving the administration in early 2003 to form his own company and serve as a consultant to Bush's 2004 reelection effort.

He's starting all over again with Pataki, traveling with the governor as he stumps for support in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and other early primary and caucus states. With Rob Cole, 21st Century Freedom PAC's executive director, Rodriguez is charged with building a national infrastructure necessary to run a presidential campaign -- although he gave no hint that Pataki had made a decision on a bid yet. "The governor wants to continue to have a national voice," Rodriguez said.

Pataki must make major gains in the next year to be considered in the top-tier of Republican presidential candidates -- a status that only McCain, Allen and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney can lay claim to at the moment. Pataki remains unproven on the national stage, and is leaving office after three terms amid poll numbers that showed Empire State voters have soured on his tenure.

Fundraising in such a crowded GOP field will also be a major challenge for Pataki. Early returns are promising, however, as Pataki brought in $500,000 for the federal arm of the 21st Century Freedom in the first three months of 2006. Pataki has proven himself an able fundraiser on the state level, raising and spending $45 million on his 2002 reelection race.

But according to Rodriguez, Pataki is much more viable in the '08 presidential race than neutral observers and party insiders now believe, especially on two of the most pressing issues of the day -- national security and immigration. "If the president has the best understanding of [those two issues], this guy understands it second best," said Rodriguez. "That is going to be a piece that comes into play."

A possible momentum-builder and attention-grabber for Pataki could come in January 2007 when Iowa holds its straw poll, which is widely seen as an early test of strength for presidential candidates. Perhaps with an eye on making a splash early next year, Pataki has been traveling regularly to Iowa and getting generally positive reviews for his willingness to meet people on a house-by-house basis -- the gold standard of campaigning in Iowa. He has also hired Iowa-based consultants to oversee his efforts in the state.

Although Pataki hails from the Northeast, he has a natural appeal in Iowa, said Rodriguez, due to the fact that he spent his formative years on a farm. "As the public becomes more accustomed with his success and how he's gone from growing up on a farm to the governor of New York it is going to resonate with a lot of people," Rodriguez said. And having been the governor of New York during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks will also "attract attention" for Pataki and get him in the door with many Iowa voters, Rodriguez added.

Time will tell whether Pataki will sell with voters in Iowa or elsewhere, but for now Rodriguez is content with getting the governor in position for a potential presidential run. "Should he decide that he wants to run for president, we are going to give him every chance and every opportunity to do so," Rodriguez said.

As for President Bush's speech tonight on immigration, Rodriguez said that "the degree [to which] the president demonstrates his compassion versus his conservatism will leave a major impression with Hispanic voters."

Read past Insider Interviews here.

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 15, 2006; 8:10 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008 , Insider Interview  
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